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Poison Waters discusses the impact of Darcelle and the importance of drag

Drag performer Poison Waters was a guest on Straight Talk this week to talk about the importance of Pride Month amid political attacks on drag performances.

PORTLAND, Ore. — After Portland superstar Darcelle XV, also known as Walter Cole, passed away at the age of 92, Poison Waters and other fellow drag queens at Darcelle XV Showplace hosted a show in her honor, fulfilling Darcelle's wish that the show would go on after her death.

Poison Waters, also known as Kevin Cook, is a local legend in her own right, having performed drag for 35 years, and she's set to serve as the Grand Marshal in Portland's Starlight Parade this year, following in the footsteps of Darcelle, who led the parade in 2010.

Poison Waters was a guest on this week's episode of Straight Talk to talk about Darcelle, the Starlight Parade and the importance of celebrating Pride Month, especially in an era when drag queens have come under increasing attack in many parts of the country through drag bans and bad faith protests.

Pride is celebrated in June to honor the Stonewall Riots, an uprising in New York City that began on June 28, 1969, when police raided The Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village. Protests against the raid lasted for 6 days and served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement around the world.

Pride Month seeks to achieve equal justice and equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning people.

Poison Waters stuck around for a bonus episode after the show, which can be viewed at the bottom of this story.

The Starlight Parade

Appearing on Straight Talk just a few days before the parade, Poison Waters said she's been throwing herself into the work of preparing to serve as Grand Marshal. Preparations are complete on her outfit, and she promised it will be dazzling.

"I'm so excited I can't even stand it," she said. "I've literally been leaning on all my friends and supporters to help get me to this point."

Growing up on Portland's eastside, Poison Waters said she viewed downtown Portland as a "mystical, Wizard of Oz-type place" that was calling out to her, and she remembers the joy of joining the parade with her junior high school marching band, so she's thrilled to get to do it again as the Grand Marshal.

"I just love it, it means so much to me," she said.

The legacy of Darcelle

Darcelle was a close friend and mentor to Poison Waters, making Cole's death an incredibly difficult moment. But his passing was something that he had prepared everyone at the club for, she said, even if they never directly discussed it.

"Darcelle taught me how to be a person, not just a personality," she said. "He showed me how to carry on in the face of adverse situations."

Darcelle XV Showplace is the longest-running drag show on the West Coast, and the club was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. Darcelle herself was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2016 as the world's oldest performing drag queen.

Cole's contributions to LGBTQ communities can't be understated, but Poison Waters said the club and the Darcelle persona were all just him being true to his authentic self and doing what he wanted to do.

"Without purposefully going out — he wasn't holding the sign or banging on doors and saying 'rights for our community,' — just being your true self, doing what you're called to do and what your heart tells you to do, is kind of a protest of its own," she said. "And so Darcelle just — regardless of what was happening in the political arena, what was happening right outside the doors in Old Town — never wavered, never considered closing the shop, never considered backing down from anything, just kept going forward, and so I think gave myself, the whole drag community, and the larger Portland community, a great lesson."

Anti-drag laws

The past several months have seen a wave of anti-drag legislation passed in several states, starting with a law in Tennessee that banned drag shows in public places. Many of the laws are worded around preventing drag performances in places where children could be present.

The new laws are trying to push drag back into the underground spaces where it used to be, Poison Waters said, and it's not something the community is willing to let happen after years of fighting for recognition and acceptance.

"The misconception is that drag queens are just running amok, forcing ourselves into schools and churches and libraries," she said. "That's just not the case. We're going where we're invited, and no one's required to come to the show."

One of the most pernicious attacks associated with the new laws is the accusation from critics that the drag art form sexually grooms children. The claim is "the most bizarre thing," Poison Waters said, because drag costumes are not intended to be sexualized.

"It's just the furthest thing from any of our minds. We're characters, we're like clowns. We're here to have fun," she said. "We want to educate people, entertain people, embrace people where they're coming from, their pain, their journey. People come to drag shows for that reason, to just kind of let go of their problems, their issues."

Some drag events, like drag queen story hours, are intended for all-ages audiences, she added, but there's still no sexual component. The stories being read at those events are written for children and focused on concepts like acceptance, diversity and "live and let live."

The impact in Portland

The anti-drag laws have a terrible impact on LGBTQ communities and drag performers in those states, Poison Waters said, but they've also prompted an enormous outpouring of support for the community in the Pacific Northwest, both locally and from out of state. 

"At Darcelle's just this past weekend, there are people from Tennessee, from Florida, from Texas, from these states... they come specifically for that, which is really just wonderful," she said.

Even so, the Portland region has seen its own share of troublesome incidents. A recent after-school Pride event was canceled due to threats, and a vandalism incident at Heathen Brewing in Vancouver after the head chef said the pub had received threats relating to an upcoming drag brunch event.

A drag queen story hour event at a bar in Eugene last year drew protesters and counterprotesters, and the incident made national headlines after the groups began throwing smoke bombs and rocks at each other.

"I think the folks that are sending hateful messages on social media, the majority of them don't even live here," she said. "I feel terrible that the folks in Eugene had to cancel their thing. The groups that I'm working to combat that, our answer to that is to keep moving forward."

One of the ways they plan to do that is with an upcoming "Drag-a-thon" event at Darcelle's, she said, which will bring in drag queens from all over the country for 48 hours of nonstop performances. 

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.

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